The summary receiver operating characteristic (SROC) curve has been recommended to represent the performance of a diagnostic test, based on data from a meta-analysis. However, little is known about the basic properties of the SROC curve or its estimate. In this paper, the position of the SROC curve is characterized in terms of the overall diagnostic odds ratio and the magnitude of inter-study heterogeneity in the odds ratio. The area under the curve (AUC) and an index Q(*) are discussed as potentially useful summaries of the curve. It is shown that AUC is maximized when the study odds ratios are homogeneous, and that it is quite robust to heterogeneity. An upper bound is derived for AUC based on an exact analytic expression for the homogeneous situation, and a lower bound based on the limit case Q(*), defined by the point where sensitivity equals specificity: Q(*) is invariant to heterogeneity. The standard error of AUC is derived for homogeneous studies, and shown to be a reasonable approximation with heterogeneous studies. The expressions for AUC and its standard error are easily computed in the homogeneous case, and avoid the need for numerical integration in the more general case. SE(AUC) and SE(Q(*)) are found to be numerically close, with SE(Q(*)) being larger if the odds ratio is very large. The methods are illustrated using data for the Pap smear screening test for cervical cancer, and for three tests for the diagnosis of metastases in cervical cancer patients.
Copyright 2002 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.